On Grasping, Contentedness, Whiteness and Being (Forever) “Half-Woke”

“What about you? Are you content?”

My friend E and I were taking a walk, catching up at the end of summer–most of which she had spent away.

E is one of my closest friends, and though we aren’t great at keeping up regular contact while apart, her question took me aback: shouldn’t she know whether I’m content?

Also: shouldn’t I know?

Am I content?

Do I–should I want to be?

“Um, I guess so,” I think I said, then. I mumbled something about how I was feeling overwhelmed, per usual; unstable, per usual; uncertain in assorted ways about teaching and writing and community–but also happy, in many moments, finding nourishment in relationships and art and work, whatever that all means.


For the last six Saturday mornings, and for four more to come, I have and will sit in a circle with a group of adults in a room at a church in north Minneapolis.

We gather there to discuss texts, watch videos, share personal stories: to work toward a deepened knowledge of this country’s racist history, and toward unlearning the racist conditioning we’ve all–all of us–received.

I’ve been appreciating that space. And feeling drained by it. Sometimes frustrated. Always thankful and humbled, often overwhelmed.

Our reflections and learnings often lead me to a similar dilemma: how to hold, at once, the vast magnitude of the problem (what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) alongside a belief that much of the most important work must take place on a small, intimate scale: settings like that church room.

(Yes, the change we need is systemic, but in order for folks–white folks, mainly–to work toward that change meaningfully, we’ve got a lot of internal work to do, too. I think.)

How, in other words, to know that no amount of resistance will ever feel like “enough,” while maintaining a commitment to resist as much as we can? Or: how to see that we are unlikely to witness the transformative, systemic change we believe necessary while continuing to take part in the work? 

Oh, right, and what is the work? Is it introducing my composition students to anti-racist concepts and texts that many of them won’t hear? Emailing my parents movie reviews that critique Hollywood’s romance with colonialism, then drinking bloody marys instead of attending an organizing meeting? Teaching poetry classes in prisons I’m not sure should exist, nodding while a guard tells me he respects the incarcerated men who he’ll deny water or bathroom privileges during class? Catching myself as I make racist assumptions about a young, Asian-American woman beside me in the sauna while I smugly read a chapter from The White Racial Frame? Talking about writing poems that address whiteness while finding every excuse to not actually write them?


Like most writers who teach (personal) essays, I often introduce my students to the roots of the word–from the French essayer: to tryAn essay, we’re told, is an attempt, an effort, a try at answering some question: what does it mean to feel joy? How to be a black man in America without getting swallowed by rage? What does it feel like to witness a bombing and manhunt on television while incarcerated? 

That they begin with questions doesn’t mean good essays arrive at clear answers; those aren’t really a thing in the world, and nor (us omniscient teachers say) should they be in print.

What we look for in essays, then, and what–I might assure myself–we look for in life, is the grasping: purposeful, thoughtful, reflective seeking.

This takes some pressure off: who needs to worry about clear answers (like what the hell “the work” means) when it’s the questions that matter?

The problem with this framework, as Leslie Jamison eloquently puts it in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, is that it lets us off the hook: “If anything counts as attempt,” she asks, “what could possibly count as failure?”

And of course, as she goes on to explain: “essays aren’t immune to failure. They can fail in a thousand ways–by failing to offer insight, by offering insights that feel too easy, too tidy, too shopworn. They can fail to enchant….They can fail to render their subjects with sufficient complexity. They can declare themselves done too soon.”

Similarly: if we know we won’t see something like “success” when it comes to the work of liberation and justice, then how will we know when we’ve failed?

In some ways, we won’t: it’s often (if not always) impossible to fully know the true, short or long term impacts of any kind of social justice work.

But it is certainly possible to fail by not doing what we can. Too easily, if I extend Jamison’s metaphor, I can applaud myself for asking hard questions while failing to take the pursuit–of insight, of knowledge, of the work itself–as far as I have capacity to do.

It is always easy, after all, to slip back into complacency: to shrug and shroud myself with the comfort that there isn’t any “right” way to resist or any measure of “enough” work. To slip back, in other words, into a notion of success (or of “content”) that isn’t mine.

Our culture–and most of our families–doesn’t teach us to prioritize working for radical change: most of us weren’t told to measure our success by how much we commit to uprooting toxic masculinity or abolishing the construct of whiteness. We were (mostly) taught, rather, to pursue our own passions, to create our own families, to seek fulfillment and comfort and happiness for ourselves.

That’s a teaching I’m trying to unlearn–but I’m not there yet.

Put another way: I still don’t know, for me, what it means to be “content”–so how can I claim something I don’t yet understand? 


At dinner with a pair of friends the other night, the term “woke” came up. I shared that I wasn’t sure it was okay (read: socially acceptable) to use the term as a white person, but struggled to put words around why.

Rob came to my aid: saying, in effect, that, as white folks, we’ll never really, fully, be “woke”; most of us have spent the bulk of our lives oblivious to the mere truth of our whiteness–the journey, as anti-racist folks often say, is lifelong, there will always be more learning, more unlearning to do.

Perhaps “half-woke,” he suggested, is a better term.

I thought of that the very next day–and how much it fits–when I found myself startled, naively surprised by some basic historical facts around American slavery presented in this podcast–one I’d just sent to some relatives, days earlier, because I thought it would be “accessible” for them (read: people I consider “less woke” then me).


There are multiple ways in which I could explain what prevented me from claiming the mantel of “content” that day: job insecurity (#adjunctlife), poetry rejections, relationship struggles (love is hard!), etc. And perhaps some combination of those was really what drove my response.

But maybe, too, it had to do with that idea of grasping: with the (relatively new) understanding of how half-conscious I am and always will be, with the awareness that I am trying to learn and internalize whole new understandings of what “success” and “work” and “content” really mean.

With the sense that, while I might be finding some insights along the way, I’ve got a very long way to go–and a destination that will always, in some ways, elude.

On Men and Women and Words; Storytelling, Journaling, and Re-Entering Singledom

“Sorry, I’ve used up all my words for the day.”

It was edging on one in the morning, and a couple of women in my teaching group and I were in bunk beds, holding a fiery debate over categories of creative nonfiction. (“It’s the difference between Eula Biss and Jo Ann Beard.” “I just feel really defiant about genre labels right now.”) No matter that they had to get up in not that many hours to teach. And, at the sight of the lone male colleague with us for the weekend, getting ready for bed, we invited him in. To talk.

“No thanks,” he said, holding up his palm — no more words.

Bless him, he’d held his own for the four hours prior, as the group of us sat on stools in the downstairs kitchen with pretzels and hummus and beer and wine, talking about teaching and writing and attitudes on communal living. But by this point, he had little interest in matching the extreme level of chattiness the rest of us couldn’t resist keeping up.

I try to avoid generalizations, and I know there are men out there who really love to talk and plenty of women who really don’t. But, in my experience, the reverse tends to be true: that men are more often the ones who run out of words.

It isn’t only, or necessarily, that women talk more. It’s that, often, we are fundamentally more interested in sharing. Reporting. Telling tales about our days. Our ideas. Our families. Our relationships. You know. The mundane shit of our lives.


“The problem is that it’s really easy for me to be single.”

I was sitting with a friend who also recently left a relationship. And he was telling me why it isn’t difficult for him to end up alone for long stretches of time.

I agreed. (Sidenote: I worry the whole dating blog thing gives me a rep as someone who’s always in, or always wants to be in, a relationship. Untrue.) I like spending time alone. I like being independent and having control over my travel and my time. I like meeting new people as a single person, not having to worry about developing relationships in couple form.

But here’s the part about being coupled that I miss: the part at the end of the day, when there is someone to hold you in their arms and say, “Tell me everything.”

I still don’t have a solid list of qualities I require in a partner. But if I did, Good Listener would be at the top. And I’ve been lucky to find men who have been. Who have indulged my desire to lie down and share all: about the phone conversation I had with my brother or the walk I took with a friend, the yoga teacher whose style I loved or the interview with a nurse who made me cry or the bearded guy at the grocery store who gave everyone the creeps.

All that banal stuff that, I suspect, men don’t always feel as inclined to share. And, perhaps, a lot of women don’t either. Maybe it’s the Writer Brain combined with the Female Brain combined with the Journalist Background, or maybe it’s just my DNA: I’ve always, automatically chronicled the moments of my day. It’s a running narrative in my head, and one that I’ve never been particularly interested in recording as a journal, or for myself. Instead, it’s always one I want to share. Either as art, or as conversation with those I love.

And now that I am re-entering the single life, I am looking for new ways to satisfy that need.

The blog, obviously, helps. (Thanks, team!) And time on the phone with girlfriends. And, lately, writing hopelessly lame poems about rainbows over Minnesota lakes and pairs of brightly colored underwear.

I’ve even begun to open up the occasional  Word document and write out my “reports” in the form of a letter — to a partner who doesn’t exist. I’m thinking of it as a transition to the genre of journaling, toward which I have long had a mysteriously epic aversion.

And I’m thinking of it, too, as another way I can practice self-care. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with wanting to share thoughts and stories with others, but there has got to be something worthwhile, too, in holding, even crafting that stuff just for myself.


Thoughts on The L-Word, Cont’d

When I teach creative writing, like everyone else who who’s ever taught it, I constantly remind my students of the old adage “show, don’t tell.”

“Don’t tell us you hate your ex-boyfriend, show us that using scene, and voice, and image, and setting,” I say. “Dramatize!”

I repeat the words of one of my former teachers: “Nothing is less beautiful than beautiful”–the word is so abstract, so entirely subjective, to describe something as simply “beautiful” doesn’t tell us anything concrete.

When we study nonfiction, I tell them they’re allowed to show and tell: I read to them from an essay by Philip Lopate about the importance of reflection and tell them something I learned from a different professor: that the story is not as interesting as the sense the author makes of the story. (Whatever that means–like any platitude, it’s imperfect, and not always true.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how this applies in life. Because I want people to show me their feelings–love, hate, whatever–but I also want them to tell me. For reasons I can’t explain, I need the reassurance that comes not just from affection, from meaningful actions, but from being told: from the statement “I love you.”

“You need something more detailed,” D observed when we had the conversation. More detailed, he meant, than the gestures and behaviors that signify love: I need the words themselves.

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Dating-While-Blogging Hazard #8,232

The other day I got a Facebook message, a very sweet Facebook message, from one of D’s friends whom I’d recently met. Said friend told me, as she put it, what she would write if she and I were to pass notes between Geometry and Study Hall.

She signed off by assuring me that D also leaves the toilet seat down at her house–thereby assuring me that he does in fact posses one certifiable flaw (for the record, he’s improving), and that she has been reading my blog.

This is a wrinkle of the whole dating-blog-meets-real-relationship event that I did not anticipate. Namely, that I would become Facebook friends with friends of D’s, that they would find my blog, and that they would then know things about him–and his oversharing girlfriend–that he might feel uncomfortable with them knowing.

Now, as this anecdote illustrates, I don’t think I have yet revealed, nor do I intend to reveal anything about D that those around him don’t already know. But still. It’s awkward.

“Oh, shit!” I said to my NY S (who, blissfully, visited me this weekend) when I saw the end of that message. “D’s friends are reading the blog!”

“Yeah,” she replied, in the same tone of voice she always uses when I gripe to her about the various complications I’ve imposed upon myself by blogging about my personal life. And then she said what she always says: “You’re gonna have to figure that one out.”

(I feel obliged to point out that S is generally a font of extreme helpfulness and compassion, and is absolutely supportive of my writing; she just happens to have a slightly skeptical stance when it comes to her best friend exposing herself so recklessly on the internet, for which I cannot blame her.)

Of course, it doesn’t bother me that his friends are reading: in the past year-plus I’ve happily adjusted to the fact of my readers including people who teach me, people who I teach, various ex-boyfriends, and my maternal grandmother. I’m over it.

But D didn’t sign up for this kind of exposure. I thought his decision not to read himself (one that he has, I’ve confirmed, been adhering to) would solve the problem: so long as he’s not reading what I write, our relationship could exist outside the realm of my online musings.

And so far it has. Mostly.

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said to me at a coffee shop yesterday, looking up from his novel with a giant grin. “A few of my friends have asked me about your blog!”

“Oh god,” I said. Again.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he went on. “They’ve like, asked me if I know about it!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Funny.” And then, flush with guilt, (I had gone and “friended” these people! what had I been thinking!?): “I can avoid being ‘friends’ with people you know on Facebook. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh no,” he replied, not missing a beat. “I don’t care! It’s just funny!”

“Really? You don’t mind your friends reading my blog?”

“Not at all. Why would I mind?”

I could have answered this question in earnest: could have suggested that it might make them uncomfortable, that at some point someone might tell him something they’ve read that he didn’t want to know, that the whole enterprise seemed, to me, like risky business.

But I didn’t. Instead, I took a breath, looked at him lovingly (no, we haven’t said it yet, those of you folowing at home), and did what I ‘ve always done upon encountering states of panic about possible effects of blogging: resolved not to worry about it until I have to.

Or, you know, until I blog about it.

What Do You Do When…

So: what do you do when fall comes, you’re enrolled in a creative writing program, you write a blog, and you have absolutely no inspiration to write?

In short, you inhabit a constant state of guilt and panic about the things you aren’t writing. (Especially the magnificent silence you produce in response to a massive New York Times Magazine feature addressing exactly your subject matter and on which seemingly everyone on the internet has at least 140 characters to say.)

You allow yourself to focus on various other tasks that more readily demand attention, like planning classes and making attendance spreadsheets and doing your own reading multiple times because you were too distracted the first few contemplating bad essay ideas and thinking about how unproductive you are. You try and reassure yourself that you aren’t the only person in the world who is deadline-driven, and attempt to ignore the comment made by one of your professors that usually, people who say they write best on deadline, only write on deadline.

You read a nonfiction essay in which the narrator equates the discipline of running marathons with that of his writing practice, only to realize that his logic is flawed. You go to the gym.

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Why I Write/Adventures in Acceptance

In response to my blogging, I’ve gotten numerous emails from friends telling me how struck they are that I’m comfortable being so open about my personal life. I haven’t known exactly how to respond to these notes: I appreciate the kudos, but I’m not sure how to describe or explain what it is that allows me to feel okay with putting so much of myself in the world.

Today, I may have come closer to an answer.

My friend, colleague and drinking buddy D asked me to be a “visiting writer” in his undergraduate Creative Writing class. This meant giving his students an essay of mine–I sent them the one about my ongoing battle with insomnia, also the one I’d given my best friend to read with the conceit that I exaggerate my insecure, love-obsessed persona–and attending his class today to answer their questions about craft, process and product.

One student observed, from the essay and my rambling comments, that I seem highly concerned with being percieved as a “good writer.”

“Why are you so preoccupied with that?” she asked. “Couldn’t you just tell yourself you’re good enough and not worry what people think?”

I told her if that if I was able to do what she said I would probably be a more well-adjusted person and thus have nothing to write about. Moving on.

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What We Can’t Have

Tonight I had drinks with a colleague and friend who is especially supportive of my romantic pursuits.

At one point, he spoke–in radically hypothetical terms–about the prospect of setting me up with a poet who lives in northern Europe and may or may not be gay.

I told him that, regardless of location or sexual preference, it was a bad idea.

“Poets are not datable,” I said. (Honestly, nothing reveals my hypocrisy more than that term: as you may have noticed I regularly rant about the pandemic of men describing themselves that way–specifically, men who try and date me–and the fact that it isn’t really a word, and then I use it all the time. I wish it were not so, but it happens to be very, if you will, usable.)

He told me it was the smartest thing he’d ever heard me say.

“Really?” I said, feeling vaguely insulted that this short and rather cliched sentence demonstrated more intellect than I’d previously conveyed.

“It’s good to hear you dismiss entire groups of people,” he encouraged. “You need to do that more often. You need to say no more often.”

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On Dating Republicans, Hippies and Expectations

Update: so, yesterday, I had another sighting of that guy I briefly interacted with the other day–the one who is possibly underage and possibly dealing drugs. I was at a coffee shop near campus and he came in, appeared to see me, turned immediately back around and left. So much for me acting out.

This coffee shop is one of approximately four in Albuqerque. I don’t go there very often due to the overwhelming and distinct scent of patchouli that is generally wafting through the place. But it’s bright, relatively quiet and has big tables, so it’s good for getting through the massive pile of grading I’ve got before me this week.

Plus, it seemed like a good idea to switch up my environment a bit. You know, see some new faces…you catch my drift. You never know who you’re gonna run into at a coffee shop frequented by hippies. What you won’t find, I’m fairly sure, are Republicans.

You like that transition? Good. It took me all morning. You try being coherent every day.

Anyhow, I wanted to get into this for two reasons. One, I have a new reader named J who lives in DC and complained on the blog about the dearth of men there who aren’t married. I concurred, and bemoaned the similar shortage of men–at least, while I was there–who aren’t Republicans. I told her that–thankfully–I had experience with the latter, but not the former. Although, frankly, I’m not sure which certain members of my family would think worse.

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A Word to My Straight Male Readers…All Five of You

Yesterday I had a really, really good teaching day. I ran into one of my own professors soon afterward, and confided that I always get a sinking feeling of disappointment when I walk out of a really successful class I’ve taught and there is no one waiting for me outside the building, with a banner that says “Congratulations! You Rock!”

She said she knew just what I was talking about. Maybe she was just being polite. But regardless,  it made me reflect on the fact that I’m not the only one in the world who requires lots of affirmation.

Which made me think, first, about how lucky I am to have a readership that seems willing to stick with me on these meandering trains of thought I call blog posts. Second, it made me think of a Public Service Announcement that I have wanted to make since around the time I got hormones. I don’t like to think of this space as a soapbox for my random opinions, but this is too important (and: who am I kidding).

It’s directed toward all you heterosexual male readers. If you take away nothing else, please, for the love of humanity and procreation, take this: if and when you are intimate with a woman, tell her she is beautiful. As much as possible. Well, actually, not too much, or she’ll begin to question your credibility. (Sorry, women are crazy. I can’t help or change this, only tell you about it.)

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